Calls for a citizen oversight committee for the Eric Uller investigation were rebuffed Tuesday night by city officials who said such a group could compromise the independence and confidentiality of the probe.
Uller was arrested this month and charged with several felonies related to child molestation while a volunteer with the Police Activities League (PAL). Following his arrest, several community members have accused the City of ignoring past complaints about Uller and City Hall has hired an outside law firm to conduct an internal investigation regarding who knew what about Uller and when.
The oversight committee was proposed for the City’s internal report, not as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into Uller.
City Attorney Lane Dilg said the City wants input from residents and remains committed to a community dialogue about the case. She suggested individuals with relevant information, either about the criminal case or the City’s internal investigation, should talk with the appropriate investigators but those investigators should have the freedom to pursue the case as they see fit.
“With respect to a Citizens’ oversight committee of the investigators, it’s not a thing that’s done and there’s a reason for that,” she said. “And the reason is that the investigators need to be independent in deciding who to interview, what questions to ask, so that they can follow where the facts lead. That’s what criminal investigators do, that’s what civil investigators do.”
Dilg said the City will continue to provide information about current policies and procedures, including any changes proposed as a result of this incident.
Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said there’s a place for residents in the process.
“Victims and families have a right to their privacy. This is a confidential and private investigation,” she said. “That said, people in this room should not be voiceless about these issues. That voice needs to be coming up with better policies and preventions, not overseeing investigators.”
Many who attended the meeting agreed and expressed anger that the City did not more thoroughly question PAL’s current and former volunteers and members after Don Condon, a former PAL volunteer, was convicted of child molestation in 2015. Others brought up allegations that officials covered up Uller’s crimes by allowing him to continue volunteering with PAL and most recently work at the City’s Youth Tech Program, despite rumors about his behavior.
Oscar De La Torre organized the meeting on behalf or the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) and said the goal was to understand why it took so long to arrest Uller.
“PNA is very concerned because many of victims lived in Pico neighborhood and some of them continue to live in the Pico Neighborhood,” he said. “It’s been generational trauma that our community has faced because of how long this individual operated within our city, first as a volunteer and then as a city employee. Our hearts go out to the victims, to the families. Many of the individuals affected are also parents, so their children have had to face various issues stemming from these incidents. The purpose of this dialogue is to understand how this can occur not once, but twice.”
Armen Melkonians, founder of the Facebook group Santa Monica Residocracy, said members of the group said they had been involved with PAL in the 90s and knew about his crimes. Melkonians said some said they worked there and tried to tell officials what was going on, but were written up for spreading rumors and forced to quit.
City officials said they and the investigators are taking those allegations seriously and will follow wherever the facts lead. Dilg said the outcome of the investigation will inform how to protect children in the future and encourage staff to report misconduct.
“We want to look back on and figure out why it happened and how it happened, but also look forward to make sure best practices are in place to make sure it never happens again,” said Assistant City Manager Katie Lichtig.
PAL’s 1996 president, Joe Palazollo, claimed the organization did not know about Uller’s behavior.
“I knew a lot of the people (in PAL) and ran into Uller a couple times, and what I find incredible is the allegations people have made that they covered things up,” he said. “The people I knew there would have killed the guy if they knew. They were there for the kids, and I can’t imagine them staying silent.”
Current volunteers and members of PAL defended it, saying that the organization has changed since the 90s and is a valuable resource for youth and parents.
“This situation is being brought up as if it as current at PAL,” said volunteer Ebonicia Fisher. “I’m deeply saddened to hear what happened to these young men, but it’s hard to hear you scrutinize PAL in this way as if it was directly them.”
Fisher and others asked officials to proactively educate children about how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, which Lichtig said the City would consider and may reach out to Santa Monica Unified School District and private schools.
“We know now we need to restore trust and confidence in the City,” Lichtig said. “There’s hurt, anger, sadness, and we want to thank you for expressing that. It’s going to take time to get enough information, but we are … committed to taking action once we know the facts.”